The UCI Gravel World Championships: A Paper Tiger

A Gritty Take on the UCI Gravel World Championships: A Paper Tiger – by Guitar Ted

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is holding its inaugural “Gravel World Championships” this weekend in the Veneto region of Italy. The acknowledged leading authority on professional level bicycle racing had heretofore not given any credence to the long standing competitions on gravel roads held in the U.S.A. and elsewhere around the world for the better part of the last two decades. However; now the august organization has suddenly taken an interest in this form of cycling competition.

Crowded finishline scene at the 2016 DK200 UCI gravel
Ted King sips the champagne at the finishline as the winner of the 2016 DK200 (Unbound) gravel event (Photo by Guitar Ted)

Somehow we all knew, speaking of those of us that have been involved in the “gravel family” for years, somehow we knew that the UCI would wheedle its way into gravel event promotions. It was regarded by those veterans of the gravel scene as something that might alter gravel racing and riding negatively. To be fair, there were those who also pointed to the UCI’s, and by way of association, the U.S.A. based USAC organization’s, capabilities in holding ordered, finely tuned events that would have weight in the way that an independent promoter of a single gravel event could not have. However; there were more people that thought the UCI, despite itself, would never “get things right”. Now, on the eve of this weekend’s events in Italy, cries of foul are being heard regarding how the UCI is implementing this “world championships”.

Obviously any organization that says it has a “world championship” winner in any venue of sport is a bit of a farcical notion, but let’s play along anyway. First, we have the selection of athletes and where they come from. Out of the 138 Pro males racing there are five from the USA. It’s quite likely you may never have heard about them, or many of the rest of the athletes in that field. On the women’s side things are a bit more familiar with regard to the names on their list, but there are only 48 women in the Pro field total.

So, it’s a bit hard to take any of that too seriously when the UCI, supposedly the bastion of legitimacy when it comes to level of competition, seems to be having a tough time fielding a representative, fair, and level field of competitors. Granted, this is the first year for them…..

Allison Tetrick with the trophy sword from winning the 2018 Gravel Worlds UCI gravel
Allison Tetrick wields the sword given to the woman 1st place finisher of the 150 mile Gravel Worlds in 2018. (Photo by Guitar Ted)

Then you have the course. According to its own description, the “world championship course” is only 3/4’s gravel. Add in that one of its two featured climbs is on asphalt and one has to wonder if this is a serious “world championship level” challenge or some kind of poor joke. You might also mark in that linked article describing the course that it has a whopping 800 meters of ascent. A half a mile? Can that be right? Oh, and that’s only for the men. The women race a shorter course with 100 meters less ascent. You know, because…….well why, actually? Doesn’t that seem a bit weak and arcane? One might even say that it was a bit sexist.

Most of the well regarded gravel events here in the USA are events with pretty challenging distances. Unbound’s 200 miles, Gravel Worlds, (the Nebraska based event that’s been around for 13 years now) is 150 miles, and others which regularly feature 100+ mile courses, are considered to be quintessential gravel competitions. However; the UCI must have been living in some kind of vacuum since their “world championships”, so-called, is a distance of 102 miles. Oh, and that’s for the men, of course, because the UCI is only allowing the women to ride 87 miles.


Looking at this event the UCI is touting as the crowning achievement in the sphere of cycling we know as “gravel”, I have to wonder, is this to be taken seriously? Can we really believe we are looking at a “world champion of gravel cycling”, or is this just a puffed up title because the UCI says so? Does a rainbow jersey from the UCI for gravel cycling have any meaning, or is this just a paper tiger?

At one time many of us in the gravel cycling community felt that the UCI would “ruin” gravel cycling. I don’t think that is the case. The UCI has just made gravel cycling a joke, and it isn’t very funny at all.

Note: the thoughts and opinions of Guitar Ted are his own and may not reflect those of the rest of the contributors or partners in Riding Gravel.


Author: Guitar Ted

Guitar Ted hails from Iowa. Home of over 70,000 miles of gravel and back roads. An inaugural member of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame and Co-creator of Trans Iowa in late 2004- Guitar Ted has been at the forefront of the growth of gravel events and riding since then. Creator of Gravel Grinder News in 2008, he produced the premier calendar of gravel and back road events. GT joined forces with Riding Gravel in late 2014.

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14 thoughts on “The UCI Gravel World Championships: A Paper Tiger

  1. It’s absurd. I could quite literally design a 10x better course in the next 5 minutes, starting and finishing in my driveway, with way more climbing and 95% gravel. Hell, I’d even run down to Costco beforehand for some beer and chips.

  2. Well hopefully it will at least be a well fought race, unlike the disappointing Lifetime series where all the top contenders seemed more concerned with the “spirit of gravel” than actually competing and trying to win the damn races.

  3. This is rubbish unfortunately for anyone familiar with history of gravel which considerably predates the currently popular endurance events in US. The one point to agree on is that UCI should make it a mixed start event in future years. Other than that the Worlds course arguable is closer to roots of gravel which are as old as cycling itself.

    1. @Jon- I disagree with your take. Had the UCI been at all interested in providing a World Championships based upon the “…roots of gravel which are as old as cycling itself.”, as you say, then I would think that this event would have been happening far before 2022.

      That it has not been happening at all until this year points to an influence from somewhere, and I would submit that “somewhere” is the current, modern gravel scene. not some romantic version of road cycling that happened to take place on unpaved roads, (because that was all they really had to work with)

      Gravel cycling today happens on purpose, not out of necessity, and therefore the very premise of the genre is based on something completely different than where your take on it is coming from. How gravel events evolved over the past two decades has much more influence on why this World Championships is happening now, and, as I wrote, the UCI isn’t seemingly at all interested in emulating that influence. They are making something more akin to a sub-par road worlds that happens to use some “gravel” roads. A snub at current gravel event formatting? Cashing in? Catering to what is fashionable now in cycling? You decide. But the influence for this is pretty plain, in my view.

      Whatever the case may be with why the UCI chose to format their event like this, it is plain that they are stuck in their old ways. It is nothing like a gravel event like the ones we see here in the USA. And the differences between the Women’s UCI course/format and the Men’s is also very much not how gravel events are run either. So, you have a somewhat flat, 1/4 pavement course, short-ish course distances, and inequality between the sexes in terms of the challenge. This is not worthy of “gravel rainbow jerseys”, in my opinion.

      And the whole concept of a cycling “World Champion” is a bit of a fairy tale as well. But that’s another philosophical discussion for another time.

      1. Well that is your take but I’ll disagree. Heck, even the original gravel races in North America (de facto Roubaix tribute races ridden same day) such as Paris Ancaster and Barrie Roubaix were limited distance mix-surface events raced on pretty flat ground (Ontario, Michigan). It is just that over time, the US scene has grown toward hardcore endurance events but that hardly constitutes a monopoly on what gravel should be. Its one particular niche of gravel riding, that’s all it is. The UCI event is another niche. I like Nathan Haas’ take on what’s going on: “Safe to say, the level will be higher than anything else experienced in gravel to date. Sadly, the main-stage male riders from the USA don’t seem to be making the trip over for the event, which is a huge loss as I was very interested to see how they would perform outside of their bubble and campervans”.

        1. The “original gravel races” you have specified are cherry picked out and are not representative of the early garvel racing scene. But I’ll humor you and point out that Barry-Roubaix, (not “Barrie”) has for its original course an elevation gain of 1.333 meters, which is about 500 more than what the ‘gravel world championships” features for the men. Paris to Ancaster features slightly less at 1000+ meters for their 160K course. Still more than the UCI thinks is top-grade worthy.

          Sorry, but no cigar!

          And we are not speaking about monopolies on format. I merely am comparing the UCI to what the UCI has done on the paved side, and it is not even close. But yes- we should not compare the gravel scene in North America to this so-called “gravel worlds” in Italy. That’s giving this UCI event way too much credit. I agree with you there.

          1. Sorry to disappoint but the longest distance Paris to Ancaster offers is 100kms, not 100 miles. Cherry picking indeed. At any rate, it’s not the course that determines the level of a race, it’s who lines up at the start. It’s good to see that the USA women made the right call; it should be an excellent battle between them and some of the Euro top racers. The men will follow next year, I am sure.

  4. I think people tend to overlook the fact that while technically the UCI is a “worldwide” organization it is really a European centered organization that will default to a European model of racing which will probably look more like a Strada Bianca or Roubaix. And, while European cyclists have been riding on gravel since way back, I think “gravel riding” is pretty much an American thing. So when a European organization tries to implement an American style of racing things don’t always jive. If they want the best cyclists in the world to compete, the race will probably have to be run in Europe. While there are many American gravel “pros” if some of the major European hitters really wanted to be competitive in the gravel scene they would wipe the floor with the Americans. As it is right now, whenever big stars come over to do our gravel events they do it for “fun” and are not there to compete, ala Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss at Unbound this year or Remco at BWR last year.

    1. @Shaun – Valid points. However; the event carries weight worldwide, not just in Europe, so it is a bit more complicated than how you have presented this.

      Again- my thoughts are that there is inequity in terms of what is presented as a “world championships level event” on the pavement side versus the gravel side for what the UCI is doing, not to mention the ridiculous holding to conventions that differ the Men’s and Women’s fields.

      I’m pretty sure a course could be laid out in Europe that would be equal to, or above the challenges we see laid out in the USA on gravel. The gender inequality thing has been a bit of a sore point for the UCI, which has never been the case in USA gravel events. I’m not holding my breath to see when the UCI comes off of their stance there.

  5. Kind of on the same line, but why do you think there is no official “US National Championship” gravel race like for road, TT, track and cyclocross? Or do you think that is coming?

    1. @Shaun – The USEF has had a National Championship Gravel event called “Gravel Nationals” for several years and they have handed out National Championship jerseys in age groups as well. The traditional cycling media gives it zero coverage and so the cycling industry ignores it for the most part as well.

  6. As European I have very very mixed feelings about the UCI. They somehow are in the position to make the rules of professional racing, and define sometimes reasonable, and sometimes outright stupid technical standards. Examples? For how long could CX bikes (yes those funny races where you cycle only half of the time, the rest of the time you carry your bike on your shoulder) not have disc brakes, because disc braces where not technically allowed in races? Shitty breaking performance in all conditions and inparticular in mud, prescribed by the UCI. Same thing for road racing bikes (at least rim brakes on RR bikes were decent). Then the UCI’s unholy “tacit agreement”with professional doping during the entire 90’s. There is a lot NOT to like with the UCI. On the other hand, they are the biggest fish in the pond with near 200 national cycling associations under their “hood”. Still, they should act definitely not like they’re the only ones, in particular in “gravel-land”. I can only shake my European head about a Gravel-World championship like that …

  7. The Gravel “Worlds” is a sham and bellows how Euro-centric the UCI continues to be. If UCI wanted to be more inclusive in the world of cycling, why not have the race almost anywhere OTHER than Europe?

    Many of the cyclist present can handle more aggressive surfaces than payment, make the course 100% non-paved with a blend of single track, cinder, clay, dirt, gravel and add some elevation. Otherwise this was always going to be a Strade Bianchi jr. event.

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